National and International Issues

Afghan Peace Process After President Trump’s Decision

Last month, on September 7, virtually on the eve of concluding a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban following a year of negotiations, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he was “calling off” the talks and cancelled a secret meeting with Taliban leaders the next day at Camp David. Though well-known for his mercurial temperament, this sudden and unexpected decision was inexplicable even by Trump’s erratic standards of behaviour. As a result, the Afghan peace process and not just the U.S.-Taliban dialogue have been derailed. And any resumption of the process remains uncertain so far.

Apart from Afghanistan itself, the other country which has a great stake in resolving the Afghan conflict is Pakistan whose strategic interests are intrinsically linked to peace in Afghanistan. Escalation in fighting and chaos across the border will enable TTP, BLA and other terrorists to freely operate from Afghan soil with support from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies.

The ostensible reason given for this cancellation was the Taliban attack in Kabul a few days earlier in which 11 people including an American soldier were killed. But, as the Taliban and other observers have argued, such attacks by the Taliban on Afghan and American forces as well as attacks on the Taliban by Kabul government troops and their U.S. allies continued to take place despite the American-Taliban dialogue. So this incident was nothing new or unprecedented. Moreover, neither side had agreed to a ceasefire which would have come into force only after the peace deal had been signed.  
It, therefore, seems that there were and are more deeper and fundamental reasons for the deadlock. For instance, it is well-known that the American security establishment, especially the Pentagon and the CIA, are opposed to the terms of the agreement with the Taliban. The establishment also concurs with the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, that an agreement with the Taliban that excludes the Afghan government would be a “sell-out” of America’s Afghan allies while also undermining the “gains” of U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. Other powers centers such as some in the U.S. Congress and in the American media are also opposed to the deal. In fact, one key conservative player in the Trump administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton, effectively scuttled the deal by reportedly leaking information about Trump’s secret meeting with Taliban leaders, which embarrassed the President and compelled him to call off the dialogue. Accordingly, it is claimed that this was the reason due to which Trump immediately fired Bolton. 
Even so, none of the opponents of the agreement have any viable options to propose or pursue. All their recommendations boil down to continuing with the military option against the Taliban which has failed for the last 18 years. At the same time, even by their own admission, the Afghan forces are incapable of taking up the task of fighting the Taliban on their own and would continue to rely on American support almost endlessly. 
Meanwhile, the time for Trump to deliver on his promise to withdraw American troops from costly foreign wars such as in Afghanistan before the next Presidential elections in 2020 is running out. Without an agreement with the Taliban, he may have to eventually withdraw troops unilaterally, which would be the worst-case scenario for all concerned parties, including Pakistan.
The agreement that had been worked out with the Taliban by Trump’s Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, was perhaps the best deal that the Americans could get in the circumstances. Having failed to achieve victory on the battlefield, they could not expect to achieve it on the negotiating table. Indeed, once Trump had decided to withdraw troops before the next U.S. elections, he needed a face-saving way out which the Taliban were prepared to give. They accepted the central American demand that they would not allow use of Afghan territory by terrorists to threaten the U.S. or its allies. They were even prepared to accept a phased American drawdown beginning with withdrawal of 5,400 troops within 135 days and the residual presence of 8,500 U.S. forces in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism operations until the gradual complete withdrawal was carried out within a mutually agreed period which was supposed to be 16 months, depending on security conditions.
The Taliban also agreed to a ceasefire after the agreement was signed and promised to engage in an intra-Afghan peace process with all Afghan factions, including the Afghan government. Now it seems that all these gains have been squandered and perhaps cannot be retrieved.
The immediate consequence has been an intensification in the fighting between Taliban and the Afghan-American forces. Accordingly to the UN, more than or 1000 civilians have been killed for which both sides are responsible. This is apart from the several hundreds of Taliban and Afghan military personnel that have been killed, including some Americans. The fighting has also extended Taliban control over Afghanistan, well beyond 50% of the country, mainly in the rural areas and includes provinces where the Taliban had no influence previously, such as in the North and East. While the Taliban may not have the capability to achieve complete victory, they can afford to continue fighting and outlast both the Kabul forces and American troops.
On the political front as well Ashraf Ghani’s government and American allies are running out of support. In the much touted Afghan Presidential elections last month, which the Taliban had opposed, the voter turn-out was less than 20%. While both main candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have already claimed victory, there are mutual allegations of vote rigging and fraud. Consequently, the election results which were due to be announced on October 26 have been postponed. None of the candidates is expected to gain the required 50% of the votes to win which would require a second round of voting by February 2020.
Ghani and his supporters in the American establishment have argued that the Afghan peace process should be kept pending until a new President is in place. Given the complicated electoral situation, this may extend well-beyond into the next year. Meanwhile, other political leaders such as former President Hamid Karzai and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have rejected this approach and advocate an intra-Afghan dialogue for a transitional government to hold elections under a neutral authority – a position that the Taliban have also implicitly supported. Meanwhile, the Afghan people are becoming increasingly desperate for an end to the fighting and a return to peace in the country. And as the latest voter turnout indicates, they have also lost faith in the Afghan leadership which they view as corrupt and inefficient.
Apart from Afghanistan itself, the other country which has a great stake in resolving the Afghan conflict is Pakistan whose strategic interests are intrinsically linked to peace in Afghanistan. Escalation in fighting and chaos across the border will enable TTP, BLA and other terrorists to freely operate from Afghan soil with support from Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies. It will also spur the drug trade and other criminal activities apart from triggering the influx of more refugees into Pakistan which has already been burdened by 3 million Afghan refugees for more than 3 decades. Intra-regional trade and infrastructure projects such as the BRI, TAPI and CASA-1000 would also be delayed.
For these reasons, Pakistan has always advocated a political solution in Afghanistan. It played a central role in facilitating the American-Taliban dialogue. The breakdown in these talks is a serious blow for Pakistan as is the renewed fighting in Afghanistan. During his recent visit to the U.S., Prime Minister Imran Khan stressed the importance of resuming the Afghan peace process in his meeting with President Trump and other leaders and called for revival of the American-Taliban dialogue. Pakistan also hosted a meeting with Taliban leaders despite opposition by Kabul, and met separately with Khalilzad, encouraging both sides to hold direct talks, which took place in Islamabad in September.
In these exchanges, the Taliban conveyed that they were ready to resume dialogue with the U.S. and sign the deal which had already been worked out with great diligence by both sides. They also pointed out that scuttling the agreement on the grounds that the Taliban had carried out an attack in which an American soldier was killed did not constitute a violation of the agreement since the two sides had not agreed on a ceasefire, which would come into effect only after the agreement was signed. The Taliban further maintained that during this period the U.S. had also carried out attacks in which several Taliban were killed. Even so, they were ready to re-engage with the Americans and were also prepared to participate in an intra-Afghan peace process with all Afghan factions including the Afghan government. However, the Taliban rejected the Afghan presidential elections which they claimed should be held under a neutral authority without external interference in which the Taliban could also participate.
By contrast, Pakistan’s American interlocutors such as Khalilzad and other officials have not been as forthright regarding the resumption of dialogue with the Taliban. While Trump had retained Khalilzad as his Special Representative which indicates that he wants to keep the dialogue option open, the Americans have tried to up the ante by asking the Taliban to do more, perhaps as face-saving for Trump. This includes reducing Taliban attacks or agreeing to a ceasefire, expressing commitment to peace talks with the Afghan government and release of prisoners (2 Americans and 1 Australian).
The Taliban have responded by asking the U.S. to take reciprocal measures – reducing American attacks on the Taliban, and releasing 17 Taliban prisoners (which U.S. cannot commit to since this requires consent of the Afghan government).
As a result, the situation is currently fluid and there is no clarity about how the U.S. wants to proceed. 
In the most recent development, the U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper visited Kabul on October 20 and told the media that “the aim is still to get a peace agreement” and that “a peace agreement is the best way forward.” This indicates that the U.S. wants to keep the deal with the Taliban alive, even though the real purpose of Esper’s visit was to reassure the Afghan government that it would not be abandoned by the Trump administration. Such assurances became necessary after Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria a few days earlier due to which he was criticized by opponents for abandoning America’s Kurd allies in Syria. The same assurance was also conveyed to the Afghan government by the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, whose visit to Kabul coincided with that of Esper’s.
More significant in this context were the comments on October 21 by the Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Miller, who announced that the U.S. was withdrawing 2000 troops, reducing them from 14,000 to 12,000. At their highest numbers during 2010-2011, U.S. troop strength had been 100,000, which began to be reduced by the then Obama administration. In a significant disclosure, General Miller stated that U.S. forces would be maintained at the “optimal” level necessary of 8,600 troops for training and counter-terrorism duties. Interestingly, this is the same number of troops that the Taliban had reportedly agreed to in the erstwhile deal with the Americans. This has raised questions among observers and the media that the U.S. is drawing down its troops from Afghanistan  without even an agreement with the Taliban. The pertinent question, therefore, being asked is as to what leverage will the U.S. have for any future deal with the Taliban? The most apt response has come from the Taliban spokesman, Khairullah Khairkhwa, that the “U.S. follows its interests everywhere. Once it does not reach those interests, it leaves the area. The best example is the abandoning of the Kurds in Syria. It is clear that the Kabul administration will face the same fate”.
The worst case scenario for Afghanistan and the region would be if Trump, in order to fulfill his electoral promise to disengage from foreign wars before the 2020 presidential elections, abandons Afghanistan and unilaterally withdraws his troops, without a deal with the Taliban. While such an outcome is so far uncertain and there are hopes for the resumption of American-Taliban dialogue, the odds against it are increasing rapidly.
In this situation, it is in Pakistan’s interest to press ahead with its efforts to encourage a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. It needs to do so by continuing with its efforts to persuade the U.S. to renew the dialogue with the Taliban and support an intra-Afghan peace process. At the same time, Pakistan needs to intensify its contacts with all the Afghan factions to bring as many of them as possible on the platform for ending their internecine conflict of decades. Equally important would be the need to work with like-minded regional powers, especially China, Russia and Iran, to jointly work for peace in Afghanistan. China and Russia could also be helpful in persuading the Americans to resume their dialogue with the Taliban. Such a process is already underway with the meeting between the U.S., Russia and China in Beijing in which Pakistan also participated. These three countries once again urged the U.S. to resume its dialogue with the Taliban and support the Afghan peace process. The convening of an intra-Afghan dialogue in Beijing shortly would also be a positive development. But, ultimately, it will depend upon the Americans if they want a peaceful negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan or face an eventual retreat.

The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan. 
E-mail: [email protected]   

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